The Boxtrolls and the Happy Ending of Class

The BoxtrollsI just watched The Boxtrolls. What a great movie it is. It is rare to see a film that is so unrelentingly true to itself — both in terms of style and substance. This is undoubtedly why it did not do that well financially. It’s the kind of film that seems like it ought to be appropriate for small children, but it is actually rather frightening to look at. But that makes sense because it tells a deeply disturbing story about the way that our society works.

The story is set in a place rather like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series — although without the magic, which is fine since many of those novels really don’t have much in the way of magic anyway. There are the humans above ground and the boxtrolls underground. But Archibald Snatcher, the exterminator for the town, really wants to get into the aristocracy. So he makes the town believe that boxtrolls are evil and violent creatures who eat humans. The boxtrolls are actually extremely meek — their only crimes being petty theft to get parts for the amazing devices they build.

Snatcher is a pathetic character. All he wants is what all Americans are taught to want: success. While he is definitely a demagogue for that cause, there is no other way open to him. The film presents the aristocracy as truly the useless rich. They don’t seem to do anything other than enjoy their lives. The four lords of the town choose not to spend the money from a fundraiser on a new children’s hospital, and spend it instead on a giant circle of brie cheese, called the “Briehemoth.” What’s more, the top lord, Portley-Rind, generally ignores his daughter and values his station in life more than her.

The townspeople also come off rather badly. There is, after all, no actual proof that the boxtrolls are anything except annoying petty thieves. The humans are only too willing to have their fears worked up and then to demand vengeance. And then, when they see that they have been manipulated by Snatcher, they immediately turn on him and demand vengeance on him. There are only five humans in the film who are sympathetic:

Two Children
Portley-Rind’s daughter is okay in the end. But she too is presented as a spoiled aristocrat. And Eggs is the orphaned boy who was raised by the boxtrolls as their own. He, of course, is the hero of the film.
Herbert Trubshaw
He is Eggs’ father, who is forced to give Eggs up to save him from Snatcher.
Two Henchmen
Snatcher has three henchmen, but two of them are fundamentally good: Trout and Pickles. The latter spends the whole movie thinking about good versus evil and questioning the rightness of their cause. Before he finally gets on the side of the boxtrolls, he speculates, “Goodness always triumphs over evil… I’m still 60 to 70% certain that’s us.”

In the end, goodness does triumph over evil. The two truly bad guys are vanquished. But more than that, in a subtle bit that is likely missed by most people, class itself seems to be vanquished. The symbol of the aristocracy were these white hats. At the end, we see Portley-Rind watching his “weird little angel” without his hat. We later see the hat in a trash can. One of the boxtrolls finds it, removes the feather from it, and discards the rest. Boxtrolls know value and all that could be salvaged from the aristocracy was a pretty feather. It’s clear enough.

Of course, you don’t need to see any of this. You can just see it as a nice story about a wrongly maligned minority group who are underutilized by the greater society — nothing at all to do with the real world. And to some extent, it is right to think of it in that way. Because it isn’t realistic. As I said: goodness does trimph over evil.

Obama’s Fake Anger

Matt TaibbiPoliticians do get angry. They even sometimes get angry in public. They are, after all, human, in some cases anyway.

But politicians mostly only take their masks off when cornered: stuck in a televised argument with an expert irritant, called to speak in a legislative chamber just as that nagging case of intermittent explosive disorder kicks in, surprised by a ropeline question on the campaign trail, etc.

But if you think that Barack Obama, one of the coolest cucumbers ever to occupy the White House, sat down for a scheduled interview in front of a professional softballer like ex-Times and current Yahoo pundit Matt Bai — a setup that’s the presidential media equivalent of a spa treatment — and just suddenly “lost it” in a discussion about the TPP, you’ve been had.

Almost without a doubt, Obama’s remarks were carefully scripted. And it’s likely all of these “whispers” suddenly circulating on the Hill about a percolating genuine personal feud between Obama and Warren also came from a focus-group-aided strategy meeting somewhere.

Even Bai approvingly described Obama’s move as an effort to triangulate the “professional left.” These tactics make a lot of sense politically, and within the Beltway, chiding the “unrealistic” progressives of the Warren ilk is considered almost a rite of passage for politicians on the blue side who want to prove they’re “serious about governing.”

Triangulating — beating up on the ideologues within your own party in order to shore up your centrist cred and reassure your money sources — is an especially brilliant solution for Democrats targeting national office. Those politicians need virtual monopolies on union and minority votes, but also need just enough centrists and white southerners to stay viable. To keep those latter votes, you need to make a few very conspicuous moves from time to time.

That’s surely what happened here with the TPP, a monster deal with the potential to reshape not just our trade profile but our domestic financial regulatory structure. Along with a Democratic Party that would love one last chance to prove itself to Wall Street heading into 2016, Obama badly wants this deal passed, perhaps as a way to steer his legacy in a more bipartisan direction before he rides off into the sunset.

So he picked just the right moment and just the right words to goad the press into painting him as someone who’s just so angry at Elizabeth Warren’s failure to understand how the real world looks from behind the Oval Office desk, he just couldn’t keep his feelings reined in. He tried to retain his usual Björn Borglike exterior, but the oven-mitt questioning of Matt Bai just beat it out of him!

—Matt Taibbi
The Democratic Party Would Triangulate Its Own Mother

Blue Texas May Be Nearer Than You Think

Deep in the Heartlessness of TexasFor years, I’ve been hearing that Texas is going to turn into a “purple” swing state in the next decades. And my response has always been the same: that’s nonsense. I’m not saying that it is untrue. I’m just saying that there is no way to know. The brilliance of the Republican Party is how it is able to sculpt a world of the deserving and the undeserving. The fact that African Americans are not part of the Republican coalition is not directly because of their skin color. If the Republicans could win by glorifying African Americans and dumping on the white middle class, they would — just as long as they were still able to do their real business of taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

But last week, I saw this paper, Projecting Partisan Change Deep in the Heart of Texas, by Tiffany Cartwright and Tyler Young, two political scientists at Collin College. They looked at the changes of demographics over the next 35 years. Not surprisingly, they find that if voting patterns stay the same, by 2050, Texas will be a solidly blue state. Of course, voting patterns do not stay the same. But what shocked me was not how things would look in 2050, when we really can’t say what will be going on. The shocking finding is that by 2020 — just five years from now — Democrats will have a solid (six percentage point) advantage in Texas.

Note how stark this is. The last time Texas voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was 1976. Also, “Texas Democrats have not won a statewide election in over twenty years.” There is a reason that the people supporting Texas politicians running for president are so certain that Obama is in the process of “taking over” Texas with this Jade Helm nonsense: Texas isn’t just red — it is crazy red. So if Texas became at all competitive in the next few years, it would be amazing. It would also make things really hard for the Republican Party.

Of course, Texas is not going to vote Democratic in the 2020 presidential election. It almost certainly would if everyone eligible to vote actually voted. But we know that is not going to happen. And in the case of Texas, the problem is extreme. The demographic shift in Texas is largely due to increasing Latino population. And they are terrible voters! “In the last few decades, reported turnout among Hispanic voters is about half that of white or black voters in Texas.” Of course, that might change as Latinos respond to their greater political power. Sad to say, people are more likely to vote if they think they will win. The problem is that it will take time to get Latinos to take voting more seriously. And during that time, the Republicans will be working to re-brand the “right” kind of people and the “wrong” kind of people.

Nevertheless, I find this all interesting. Even as early as 2020, the Republicans are going to at least have to start protecting Texas as their territory. And that’s a good start. There doesn’t seem to be any move at all among Republicans to reach out to Latino voters. As Republican voters get whiter, they seem to demand ever more extreme demonstrations of anger at immigrants. Eventually, the Republicans will get over that. But in the next five years? I don’t think so.

The Bush Dynasty and the Clinton Partnership

Amy FriedAmy Fried wrote a very good article on something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, Three Stark, Politically Critical Dynastic Differences Between Jeb and Hillary. Let me give you an overview of it, and then I’ll add my own take, because I think there is a much more profound difference than she talks about.

In a sense, all three of Fried’s differences could be summed up thusly, “Hillary is a far better politician than Jeb” — because Americans are particularly reticent to blame a person for the sins of a loved one. But she was right to break this all out. She started with something pretty obvious, “Bill Clinton is seen favorably. George W Bush is seen unfavorably.” It’s true: Americans don’t mind power families if, you know, they like the power family. Bush Sr isn’t terribly revered and Bush Jr is hated. So Jeb Bush gets nothing positive from his association and Hillary Clinton does.

The second difference is really just the first difference, “The Clinton economic record is far better than the Bush economic record.” That’s why people like Clinton. If the economy had boomed under Bush, they would all forgive his many other problems. But it didn’t. As Fried noted, even if you forget the bursting of the housing bubble, the unemployment rate under Bush started at 4.2% and went up to 6.3%. For Clinton, it was the opposite: from 7.3% down to 4.2%. Are these fair ways of judging a president? No! But they are how people do judge presidents. And Bush’s economic policies were bad regardless.

The third difference is the heart of the matter:

While Hillary Clinton is backing away from elements of her husband’s presidency that aren’t all that popular, Jeb Bush is doubling down on the very unpopular policy of his brother’s presidency — the Iraq War.

Even with George W Bush’s policies being unpopular in pretty much every area, Jeb Bush doesn’t see the need push against them. Hillary Clinton is showing no hesitation is pushing back against Bill Clinton’s unpopular policies. I just wish she would push back against his bad policies that aren’t particularly unpopular, but that is certainly asking too much. My hope is just that if she becomes president, she will try to do some minor fixes to the way that her husband screwed up things like the welfare system.

But I think there is a much more fundamental difference between the Clintons and the Bushes. I don’t even see the Clintons as a dynasty. They are a power couple. They were both involved in politics before they met. So their existence as a couple is largely due to their involvement in politics. It is the other way around for the Bushes. I don’t think that George W Bush would have gone into politics if it hadn’t been the family business. What’s more, I don’t see anyone taking him seriously if he had. He has always been a silly guy. People took him seriously because his father had been president. People take Hillary Clinton very seriously on her own terms.

So there is a Bush dynasty, but it is a Clinton partnership. Does that mean that there are no problems with the partnership? Not at all. And it is getting a lot of scrutiny — and it will get a whole lot more. But the Bush dynasty is a greater concern — especially in a country that so fetishizes meritocracy (even though it doesn’t practical it). But it seems oddly “off limits” in mainstream political discussions. Sure, people talk about it on the margins. But just imagine in Jeb Bush were elected president. That would mean that the last three Republican presidents were all from the same family: a father and his two sons. That’s a dynasty — and more proof than is required to call the lie of American “equality of opportunity.” A husband and a wife being president, separated by almost two decades, it is not a dynasty — although I still don’t especially like it.

Morning Music: Whitty Whitesell

Whitty WhitesellAs most of you know, I stand in awe at the talent that is everywhere. So I’m always on the lookout for art done just for the love of it. In this regard, I recently discovered a guy by the name of Whitty Whitesell. In 1993, he put out an album 57 by Whitty Whitesell & the Life Parade. I have only heard the song, What Does The Word Mean? It’s very compelling power pop — reminiscent of the first ‘Til Tuesday album, but with more musical clarity and a better hook than Aimee Mann was writing at that time.

Well, Whitesell is middle-age now with a career and family. But according to his website, he was listening to his album with his kids and decided that he didn’t want it to be his final musical legacy. So with the encouragement of his family, he wrote some new songs and recorded them. They are simple in a sense: just him with his 12-string guitar and occasionally harmonica. It is all well-crafted, beautifully performed, and without pretense. (I have one of his songs stuck in my head.) Personally, I would prefer the songs with less processing — but I’m sure I’m in the minority with regard to that. It is impressive how it sounds like a whole lot more than just a guy and a guitar.

I’m particularly fond of “St Lucy’s Flyin’ High,” “Breathe,” and “Infamous Maggy.” But he’s created a video for another song, “Dying to Myself.” Whitesell encourages you to download the whole thing for free and burn a CD (he’s showing his — and my — age). Or you can listen to the whole thing directly from his website. It is well worth checking out.

Anniversary Post: Marshall Applewhite

Marshall ApplewhiteOn this day in 1931, Marshall Applewhite was born. I suspect you don’t know the name, but the photo on the left probably gives it away. He was the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult and the guy who organized the group’s memorable mass suicide in 1997. I learned a lot while reading about him. We mostly have the wrong idea about Heaven’s Gate. Because of the tennis shoes and the whole thing about Comet Hale–Bopp and the spaceship that was following it, people think that it was some kind of nerd cult. But it was really just a garden variety end times belief system. Like most cults, it combined a lot of different elements, including lots of Christianity — especially from Revelation.

What I find most interesting is what these kinds of cults say about all of our searches for meaning and the ways in which our society does not provide much nourishment in that regard. I just read Neil Postman’s excellent, The End of Education. Unlike most books about education, it isn’t about “how”; it is about “why.” And in our approach education, just as in our approach to life, we don’t have much to say in terms of “why.”

The American (and increasingly the world) notion of a meaningful life doesn’t offer much. It’s pretty much what Schopenhauer discussed in The World as Will and Idea: “momentary gratification, fleeting pleasure conditioned by wants, much and long suffering, constant struggle, bellum omnium [everyone against everyone], everything a hunter and everything hunted, want, need and anxiety, shrieking and howling; and this goes on in saecula saeculorum [forever and ever] or until once again the crust of the planet breaks.” Is it any wonder that people grab onto simplistic life narratives about asceticism leading a pure existence in a science fiction nirvana?

I don’t see Applewhite as an evil man. I think he was as lost as his followers. But in a sense, they were not as lost as much of society. They rejected the hollowness of the American Dream. But they replaced it with something even more hollow: nihilism. It’s sad. Just the same, I can’t feel too superior. Until today, about the only thing I knew about them was that they died wearing Nike™ shoes. It’s a fitting, if ironic, testament to their rejection of the world that we mostly remember them for their brand loyalty.

Happy birthday Marshall Applewhite.